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The Threepenny Opera at the Cockpit Theatre

This was, as a fellow theatregoer pointed out to me afterwards, laughing with what can only be described as a nervous giggle, “different”, which is a polite way of saying it was rather weird. The characters are all dressed in high-visibility vests. It appears the production was suggesting the cast were not so much in the construction sector as in a factory setting, with regular public address system announcements at every scene change, introducing each scene. It would, to be fair, have been difficult to work out where a particular scene was set straight away without the running commentary, with a fairly minimalist set in place throughout.

'THE THREEPENNY OPERA' at the Cockpit photo by Elliott Franks
‘THE THREEPENNY OPERA’ at the Cockpit photo by Elliott Franks.

At the centre of the in-the-round staging was a cylindrical platform, which had multiple purposes as the show went on – from the conductor’s (Lada Valešová) podium to the cell at the Old Bailey where serial criminal Macheath (Peter Watts) is held. There’s no indication of court proceedings – the narrative jumps from arrest to death sentence, which does (to be fair) give the story’s final outcome some credibility. The show – and this production of it – aren’t as absurdist as they come across at face value.

More of a play with songs than an actual opera, it’s a popular show at least partly because of the enduring relevance of the themes explored. This version tries a little too hard on occasion, however, to be contemporary, inserting references, amongst other things, to “Scotland Yard protection rackets” and the current (at the time of writing) Prince and Princess of Wales (it is not inferred, for the avoidance of doubt, that there is any correlation between the two). Theatre regulars who have seen various productions of The Threepenny Opera may find there is less audience involvement than might be expected, whilst first-timers may find there is more than anticipated.

There’s actor-musicianship abound in the show, as the cast play multiple roles and multiple instruments. Some thought has been given as to which instruments can be moved around: I am reminded of an actor-musician show I saw some years ago in which some poor soul found himself lugging a double bass around the stage whilst attempting the choreography – there was none of that sort of thing here. Valešová moves around too, and it’s not always clear whether all of the musicians have a clear view of their conductor at all times. Nonetheless, it is commendable that the stage never feels busy for the sake of busyness, with all movement serving a purpose.

I wonder, though, whether the sparkling clean hi-vis vests and trousers are a metaphor for how clean and clinical the production comes across. Threepenny, as I understand it, is meant to be provocative and gritty, whereas I came away feeling I’d seen something pleasant and agreeable. Those public address announcements might well be the reason why the production felt more charming than confrontational – the ‘inventors’ (Faith Turner and Mark Carlisle) might as well have been making Tannoy announcements in a supermarket, politely asking a colleague to clean up a spillage in aisle eleven, or wishing customers a lovely day. Oh, and Jonathan Peachum (also Carlisle) has it right, for instance, when he observes that, “Life’s a bitch and then you die”.

Then again, putting everyone in hi-vis attire means that at least visually, it is quite impossible to tell the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’, or who is really in control. The show ebbs and flows as the evening goes on, a reasonably decent night out.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Mack the Knife is the lord of London’s criminal underworld, but he just wants to go mainstream… he swears! When he gets together with Polly Peachum, her father isn’t too happy about it. Jonathan Peachum, head of London’s beggar mafia, wants to get him out of the picture, but Macheath is too well connected to make this easy – even the Chief of the Metropolitan Police has his back. But an old flame, with revenge on her mind, might just do for him this time…

Will Macheath make it out alive? With or without his new wife Polly? We’re in the theatre, luvvies, not real life, so all the usual rules are off!

Produced and presented by OVO in collaboration with The Cockpit
Produced by OVO

By Bertolt Brecht (text & lyrics) and Kurt Weill (music) in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann
English translation of the dialogue by Robert David MacDonald
English translation of the lyrics by Jeremy Sams
Directed by Adam Nichols and Co-Directed by Julia Mintzer
Conducted and Musically Directed by Lada Valesova.

https://www.thecockpit.org.uk/

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